One of the more contentious races for a statewide post — with its own pending defamation lawsuit — has been for head of the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, pitting the one-term incumbent, Chris Reykdal, against Maia Espinoza, who made an unsuccessful run for the state Legislature as a Republican in 2018.
For more than a decade, a leading focus of the OSPI have been the issues of funding and equity that grew out of the McCleary lawsuit, a 2007 court challenge by parents over inadequate and inequitable funding of K-12 public education and the violation of the state constitution’s “ample funding” mandate.
The state Supreme Court ended its review of its McCleary mandate in 2018 after the Legislature made significant investments in education funding — and adopted a funding mechanism that shifted much of the property tax liability from local districts to the state — during Reykdal’s tenure.
While issues of funding remain for the state lawmakers to address, much of the discussion during a joint interview with The Herald Editorial Board in late August centered on the office’s leadership on the shape of instruction during the coronavirus pandemic, school construction funding and the dispute over legislation that seeks to ensure all districts provide some level of sexual health curriculum be taught in classrooms, itself the subject of a referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot.
That legislation is what led to the defamation lawsuit. Prior to the primary election in August, Reykdal sued, seeking removal of a statement Espinoza submitted for inclusion in the state voters guide that alleged Reykdal’s support for curricula she claimed showed illustrations of “different sexual positions, including masturbation.”
A Thurston County Superior Court judge initially found in favor of Reykdal and ruled the statement as false, but a decision by the state Supreme Court in early August reversed the lower court ruling. The Supreme Court made no determination regarding the truth of Espinoza’s statement, but said the question of defamation would have to be considered by another court and that her statement could run unedited in the voters’ guide.
During the discussion with the editorial board, Espinoza repeated her earlier statement, which Reykdal continues to argue is a falsehood. Espinoza and others, including those who oppose Referendum 90, which would affirm the legislation, have pointed to what they claim is classroom curriculum that shows graphic sexual content.
Reykdal argues, persuasively, that the content, which is listed among additional material for district consideration, is not intended or recommended for classroom instruction, but is instead a “third-party text” meant as an alternative resource for parents.
Espinoza also failed to provide a good argument as to why the law’s provision that allows parents to opt their children out of a district’s choice of curriculum was not an adequate protection of parental rights regarding the instruction.
It’s not the only problem with Espinoza’s voters guide statement. Under “Education,” she lists “MS, Curriculum and Instruction, Western Governors University,” which most voters would assume means she has earned a master’s of science degree. WGU Washington confirmed to the Washington State Wire that while she is enrolled in that program, she has not, as of last week, completed it.
Both candidates faulted the state Supreme Court in its McCleary decision for not addressing funding issues related to school construction, particularly for rural and “property poor” districts that have difficulties winning voter approval for capital bonds, yet both split on a remedy. Reykdal said he intends to pursue legislation that would require the state to better provide construction funds for those districts and would seek a change to the 60 percent supermajority requirement for bond passage. Espinoza suggested a loosening of regulations for school facilities and said she was opposed to a change to the supermajority requirement.
Espinoza also found fault with OSPI’s response to the Covid-19 crisis, alleging that Reykdal and his office have not provided adequate guidance on when and how districts can restart classroom instruction. But Reykdal’s office has indeed provided that guidance, in use by a few districts in regions where infection rates are low enough to persuade school districts to begin hybrid schedules. The 52-page planning guide will, when conditions improve, help other school districts prepare to reopen classrooms while assuring the health and safety of students, teachers, staff and families.
And while remote learning remains the norm, OSPI also has made a significant investment in making sure homes without an adequate internet connection can get that service through broadband or WiFi hotspots, he said.
Reykdal, himself a parent of school children, has a varied resume that suits his leadership of OSPI, including a master’s degree in public administration and previous work as a history teacher, a fiscal analyst for the Senate Transportation committee, state representative and three director positions with the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
Reykdal has won approval for more than 25 pieces of legislation he has proposed, among them returning civics as a mandatory graduation requirement, expansion of dual-language education, expansion of the Core Plus program that provides high school students with training in skilled trades learning and delinking of high-stakes testing from graduation requirements. During his term, the state has seen graduation rates rise to record highs, and the K-12 McCleary investments have increased per student spending by $3,500.
Reykdal has shown himself an active and responsive steward of the state’s schools and someone who has worked toward the best interests of students. As school districts — and students and parents — look forward to a return to classrooms in coming months, voters should make sure that his leadership is there to draw upon.